Karin Slaughter’s 2018 thriller, “Pieces of Her,” is nearly impossible to put down, but that doesn’t mean it’s a natural fit for an adaptation. While the novel opens with a riveting scene involving a nice suburban mom dispatching an active shooter with the dexterity of a trained assassin, much of the story unfolds in the mind of her daughter, 31-year-old Andy, as she embarks on a road trip to solve the puzzle of her mother’s fractured past. As Andy learns, Laura Oliver, the protective speech pathologist who raised her, has a lot to hide.
Netflix’s new eight-episode adaptation, starring Toni Colette as Laura and Bella Heathcote as Andy, departs regularly from the source material: The grisly encounter that sets the plot in motion is mercifully less nauseating than the novel; one major character is added; and one villain, securely incarcerated in the book, instead remains at large. But, as Slaughter explained a couple days before the series premiered on Friday, the spirit of the novel remains intact. That was a huge relief for the author, whose nervousness over the show could be alleviated only by hours on her treadmill. During a phone conversation from her home in Atlanta, Slaughter talked about her involvement in the new series and why she thinks it works so well.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How involved were you, if at all, in the making of the series?
A: I was as involved as I wanted to be, because this is not my area of expertise, but I was delighted to learn some new things, because I’m just curious about everything. I was more involved on being a resource for, “Why did this character do this?” Or, “What were you thinking when this happened?” Or “What was your motivation?” And I got to read scripts and I got to be on set for one day. That was really cool. It was in downtown Atlanta. It was 100 degrees, and we were outside for the most part, and Bella, one of the beautiful people in the show, was saying, “Oh, well, it’s going to be better in Savannah, right? Because it’s a moist heat?” And I said, “Well, not if your skin is on fire.”
Q: You mentioned being excited to learn new things about making a series. Anything leap to mind?
A: So Minkie [Spiro] is the director on all the episodes. And you know, she’s a very short person like me. So both of us were looking up at all these big guys who were wrangling all this stuff on the set, but they were using Matchbox cars on a table to show where the cars went. And, you know, here we are with all this sophisticated equipment and computers and cameras, and they’re literally just using Matchbox cars. I love details like that.
Q: Maybe you can use that for one of your next novels.
A: I’ll leave it to Mike Connelly to write about the world of Los Angeles. But yeah, it was really cool just to see how they work with the extras. And you know, there are hundreds of people on set for this thing that was in my head while I was in my pajamas writing it a few years ago.
Q: What really struck me about the series was how similar and how different it was from the book, different enough that I wasn’t sure what was going to happen even though I read the novel.
A: Charlotte [Stoudt] is the person I spoke with — and she’s the showrunner and writer — and I said to her, I know you can’t have Andy sitting in a car for three episodes traveling across the country and being upset and thinking, even though I can do that in several chapters. You have to have things happen. But it was really important to keep the spirit of the characters and the emotional story between the mother and daughter, because that’s the real heart of the book for me. It’s kind of, in a way, a love story between a mother and daughter. And it’s about trauma and how it can really be passed down genetically. Andy has no idea of all these things Laura was up to, but she’s inherited that trauma in some silent ways and in some really visible ways, like where her life is at the moment where she’s just stalled out. So I was pleased with how they managed to do that and to bring the two of them together. And I don’t like stories that have every single strand tied up. I mean, obviously the big strands are tied up, but they left it at a place where I felt like, yeah, I’m just super-pleased. I love everything about it, actually.
Q: How was watching the series for the first time?
A: I love to be on the treadmill when I’m stressed out. And I’ve been so anxious about this, I’ve been on the treadmill for like two hours a day. No kidding. And so I just watched it on the treadmill. I binged it over the course of a few days.
Q: What were you most nervous about?
A: I just really want my readers to be happy. I mean, I can’t control reviewers. Let’s be honest, this is a story about a mother and daughter, and a lot of guys aren’t into stories about mothers and daughters. So I know a lot of male reviewers might not key into it. I wasn’t too worried about that. it was mostly that a lot of my readers I’ve had from the first book, and I feel a real responsibility toward them and I want them to love it because I just think it’s my job to be the gatekeeper for these stories and I don’t want to disappoint them.
Q: And this isn’t your only book that’s in the works for an adaptation, right?
A: Yeah, my Will Trent series is hopefully going to pilot soon. It’s a very different experience. Netflix just says, “Yes, we’ll take it. Go film all the episodes.” But the network says, “We’re going to do a pilot and see if we like it.” So it’s a different process. I will say, I have friends who’ve gone through this and it’s just been a war story, but it was really as easy as it could be. And even my film agent said to me, “Don’t expect this to happen every time.”
Q: I was curious how the story came to you. Was it in a flash or slowly? Was it characters first or plot?
A: It really started with my dad getting older and telling me stuff about his life that I did not want to know. Like, I remember my stepmother saying something about the mirrors he had on his headboard, and I was like, “Nope, no. Don’t want to hear it.” I think everybody realizes at some point that their parents had a life before them. And it’s really horrifying in some ways. So I wanted to explore that and to put it through the lens of a mother-daughter relationship where this woman, Laura, has been lying for almost her entire life. I mean, even back to when she was a young woman inside her family, she was a liar. But she’s also got these complexities and this really good side of her. And then, you know, she basically reinvents herself with her daughter. And that, to me, was fascinating because a lot of women reinvent themselves over their lifetimes.
You know, in your 20s, you’re just kind of freaked out and you’re like, “Oh my God, I’m going to have to be an adult someday,” and then in your 30s, you’re like, “This is the day. I’ve got to start being an adult: I’ve got to work out, I’ve got to sleep.” And in your 40s, you’re like … “If I make it through the day and no one dies, I’m winning.” And Andy is a millennial — so let’s be honest, your 20s are really your 30s now if you’re a millennial — and trying to figure out who she was and what to do with her life. Kind of weirdly the best thing that happens to her is she finds out that her mother was in a homicidal cult. Which I don’t recommend for all millennials. But, you know, it really helped Andy find her legs.
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